Swarthmore Must Protect the Right to Protest

On campus, the right to protest is being threatened; this right must be protected, not questioned. 

On Friday, Dec. 1, the Swarthmore Board of Managers held a dinner at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Engagement. As the dinner started, students entered the building and caused a disruption to protest the college’s investments in businesses engaged in human rights abuses in Palestine, calling for Swarthmore to divest from these companies. After students protested the meeting, the school promptly sent out letters to student protestors, stating that the college would be issuing an “official warning and a directive to not engage in any further behaviors that would violate College policy.” The dinner was one of several protests that have been cited in Code of Conduct violation warnings emailed to students. 

 The Code of Conduct violation letters cite a few common violations of the Student Handbook, such as affixing stickers to buildings, hanging flyers, using a bullhorn, and “participat[ing] in a student protest in the Dining and Community Commons.” These actions are expressions of dissent and nonviolent protest that must be protected.  

Historically, Swarthmore students have staged sit-ins and other forms of protest to disrupt the status quo. In 1969, the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS) conducted a sit-in in the Admissions Office to demand equitable admissions policies for Black students. In 2019, the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence similarly protested sexual violence at the former Phi Psi lodge. These protests catalyzed meaningful change and progress on the part of the college. 

Despite this history, the current college policies and rhetoric actively discourage and punish similar forms of student activism. For example, the Student Handbook states that “Protests are permissible, except in the following locations: classrooms, offices, libraries, dining halls (including cafes), Worth Health Center, residence hall rooms, and lecture halls, ensuring that the normal work, residential experiences, and services of the College can continue.” It is unclear why protests must be restricted to only certain locations. The Student Handbook also maintains that “Expressions of dissent … must not interfere with normal College business.” 

These statements lay bare the fundamental truth of the college’s stance: a willful ignorance of the fact that even peaceful protests are, by their very nature, disruptive. The current sit-in, like past sit-ins in college history, aims to disrupt daily operations to have Swarthmore administrators reflect upon institutional values.  

The Student Handbook not only proves to be unnecessarily restrictive, but Swarthmore administrators are also inconsistent with its enforcement. The rules currently outlined in the school’s handbook are simultaneously overbroad and incredibly vague. The result is rules that are largely not enforced, and only enforced selectively. 

For example, a cursory walk around any academic building on campus reveals dozens of posters put up technically in violation of the official poster policy, which states that “All advertisements, flyers, notices, etc., constitute posters and may only be posted on public bulletin boards.” Even the college has official posters up that violate this policy, most notably its “Union FAQ” QR code posters and flyers, which have been hung on walls, columns and other unauthorized spaces, not on public bulletin boards. 

For years, students and faculty have advertised clubs and courses on a column in the dining area at Essie Mae’s. These posters are in violation of the aforementioned policy, but students have never received disciplinary warnings in this context, nor have posters been taken down with any regularity. Furthermore, Solidarity at Swat members have previously used bullhorns during campus protests with no disciplinary action taken against them. However, disciplinary warnings sent to SPC protesters included the use of bullhorns as a violation of student conduct. The selective enforcement of these rules raises questions of racial bias and the targeting of speech based on its content. 

By issuing disciplinary warnings to specific student protestors and not others, the administration seems to be focusing on punishing certain students solely for the content of their speech. The college must maintain a consistent enforcement of Student Handbook policies that emphasizes the college’s fundamental belief in protest. Ultimately, it is clear the administration’s support of protest extends only to causes that won’t harm the college’s financial and social standing. It is in the college’s best interest to support students’ peaceful protests rather than try to stifle their speech. 

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